Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is a is a popular time to visit Spain, especially the south, where Holy Week is celebrated more visibly than in other areas of the country. This annual commemoration of the Passion of Jesus Christ is celebrated by religious brotherhoods who perform penance processions in the Spanish streets. Like Easter, Holy Week in Spain is a floating holiday which occurs during the last week of Lent, just before Easter arrives. It is also a very expensive time to travel, since many locals have this week free, thus making it a good time to settle in and enjoy the best of the local sights, sounds and tastes. (photo by Hernán Piñera)
I’ve heard many Americans say that seeing the processions and the penitents, with their flaming torches, and iconic robes and tall conical masks, known as capirotes,makes them vaguely uncomfortable. Having grown up in the south myself, I understand that the visual snapshot can perhaps be disconcerting, being slightly redolent of the Civil War south, but the resemblance ends there. Covering themselves in this manner signifies the penitents’ personal relationship with God, He being the only one who can see them. Like with any other tradition in Spain, I see it as an opportunity to learn something new about the culture. As always, this is my goal, no matter how far from or close to home I am. The experience can be a powerful one, despite your own personal beliefs, because it reveals the Spanish culture’s deep commitment to the Catholic Church, especially evident in the southern region of the country.
The best places to visit during Holy Week are the cities of Andalucia, the southernmost region of Spain. Sevilla holds one of the biggest celebrations. During the week, the city is suddenly filled with 115 floats, manned by 60,000 members from 57 brotherhoods. However, Málaga, Granada, Cordoba and Huelva also hold their own smaller celebrations and are worth checking out. Each city has its own unique traditions during their festival. For example, in Málaga, visitors can witness the ritualistic freeing of a prisoner, who is then blessed by the figure of Jesus Christ. Cordoba’s celebration is silent and solemn, and set against the stunning backdrop of the Historic Quarter of Cordoba, a UNESCO World Heritage sight. Granada’s Semana Santa is a rich blend of religious fervor and folklore–infused by the zambras — parties filled with flamenco singing and dance–held in the shadow of the Alhambra.
The processions that dominate this week are impressive displays, between the costumes, effigies, rhythmic drums and music, clouds of incense, and the often synchronized movements of each brotherhood’s passage throughout the city. The floats, or pasos, are often incredibly large and heavy, some dating back as early as the 17th century, and manned by up to 130 costaleros, or bearers, and followed by thousands of penitents known as nazarenos. Often reflecting the various passages of the Easter story, these floats are ornately decorated with flowers, candles, and life-sized carved figures, and gilded in silver or gold. The processions, both the ones that take place during the day and at night, can be quite moving, especially for very devout. (photo by Hernán Piñera)
It’s a good idea to ask your hotel for a program of the week’s events. If they can’t supply one, they can often also be found in the bars or information tourist points. The country’s largest newspaper El Pais, publishes a daily route while others include maps showing the routes, the churches, and the best places to view the events. In some cases, you may have to buy tickets to view the processions from tickets stands in the local area.
It is important to be aware that during Holy Week, crowds in the cities swell as the town’s residents and visitors alike turn out to watch the daily events unfold. It can get very crowded in the narrow avenues, and those who don’t like crowds might prefer to scout out a comfortable location farther from the main events where it also may be easier to see the processions. The fervor reaches its peak on Good Friday, perhaps a good day to find a viewing spot away from the throngs. On this day the processions begin at midnight and carry on throughout the night. The highlight of each procession usually comes with the appearance of the city’s most revered virgin saint. In Sevilla, for example, La Macarena appears at 3am to local fanfare. Some hotels and restaurants have balconies that overlook the procession routes or it may also be more comfortable to head to the local churches to see the processions begin.
Unlike some of the more festive events that occur in Spain, there is a level of decorum expected during Holy Week. It’s important to show a customary level of respect by not walking through the middle of the processions and by maintaining a level of quiet if not full silence during the events.
In addition to the spectacles and festivities that can be found throughout Andalucia, I relish heading South for other reasons too, primarily the food. Andalucian food can be one of the best aspects of the visit, heralding treasures that I don’t get to enjoy in the north. Eating anything a la andaluz is a delicious treat given that it means anything dredged in flour and fried in large quantities of olive oil. It reminds me of the delicate fritto misto of northern Italy but heartier and with a character more expressive of the spicy olive oils of southern Spain. My favorite dish to order a la andaluz are puntillitas, tiny whole baby squid. Gazpacho is another personal favorite of mine, a delicious summer treat that can be enjoyed even in the early spring when it’s just beginning to get warm. I love the bright tomato taste, with its vinegar garlic bite, and the rich addition of local olive oil. Of course, the famous jamon Iberico (cured ham from acorn-fed Iberian pigs) is abundant and worth trying as are the other cured meats. For those who are looking to eat beyond a typical tapas tour, there are many hearty dishes which will keep visitors sufficiently full during the events, from oxtail stew to other rich meat-based dishes like migas. It would be remiss to leave the region without enjoying one (or more!) of the traditional Semana Santa pastries, like pestiños which are made with olive oil and fennel or torrijas, small sweet bites of something akin to French toast or pain perdu. (photo by cyclonebill)
A trip to the south wouldn’t be complete without an introduction to the local sherry which hails from the region of Jerez and can be enjoyed anywhere in the south. It is a must-try while you’re there. Manzanilla, which is Spanish for chamomile, is a variety of fino sherry that takes its name from its tasting notes of delicate chamomile tea. Made exclusively in the area around the port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda in the province of Cádiz, this sherry is lighter than fino and expresses the particular characteristics of its terrior, at once dry and saline with a zesty liveliness that distinguishes it from the rest. Those interested in getting to know the sherry family, should also try the olorosa, the Pedro Ximénez and the amontillado, the last of which is not technically a sherry but shares similar characteristics.
The wines in the south are excellent too of course. Those who visit the region of Málaga can try the Málaga wine, a sweet fortified wine made from a blend of Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes. Others might be interested in sampling one of the many grapes grown in the region, including tempranillo, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, bobal and garnacha, either as single-varietal wines or as blends.
No matter which city you end up celebrating Holy Week in, be sure to bring your camera and your appetite to capture the sights and tastes of this atmospheric event. You won’t regret spending a week soaking up the tradition and culture during the long days and nights of the sweet southern climes of my favorite country. I hope to see you there!
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